debkafile Exclusive: A secret British military delegation arrived in Tehran Tuesday as Ahmadinejad pushed for an immediate military confrontation w

In a second take from Tehran, debkafile‘s exclusive sources continue coverage of the top-level Iranian debate on how to dispose of the 15 British captives seized on March 23.
The fierce – often strident – debate between pragmatists and radicals prompted supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who leads the first camp, to order president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who speaks for the radicals, to call off his planned news conference on Tuesday, April 3. The president had intended to unveil an important advance in the national nuclear program; he certainly did not mean to augur a breakthrough in the 12-day hostage crisis.
In the ongoing debate, the president and his radical followers seek to use the British captives to goad the British, followed by the Americans, into a limited military confrontation in the Persian Gulf. Iran would then exploit its local edge to teach the West that it is not worth their while to mess with the Islamic Republic in a full-blown war or count on trouncing it easily.
debkafile‘s sources in Tehran report that it is hard to predict which way the dispute will go. There were moments on Monday and Tuesday when it looked as though the Khamenei line for ending the crisis, backed also by supreme national security advisers Ali Larijani, would prevail. Larijani came out Monday night with the encouraging statement that there was no need to put the captured British sailors on trial and the crisis could be solved through bilateral diplomacy. He said a delegation might come to Tehran to review the points at issue.
Tuesday, a British military delegation did indeed arrive secretly in Tehran.
Larijani’s statement was the outcome of back-channel talks between Tehran and London, partly by videoconference, in which the British promised to de-escalate their tone and calm the situation, in return for an Iranian pledge that the captives would not be tried.
London allowed the 15 sailors to admit they had trespassed into Iranian waters, while Tehran agreed to suspend further television footage. London also offered to help work for the release of the five Revolutionary Guards al-Quds Brigade officers captured by US agents in Baghdad. One of them, second secretary at the Baghdad embassy, Jalal Sharafi, was indeed set free Tuesday.
The British even offered to obtain for Iran information on the whereabouts of the missing Iranian general Ali Reza Asgari, believed to have defected to the West in February.
Our sources add that the radical faction of the Iranian leadership is still working hard to derail the positive diplomatic track and use the crisis to bring about a military escalation in the Gulf. Ahmadinejad is supported in this by the Revolutionary Guards commander Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi and RG Navy chief, Gen. Morteza Saffar. They are stirring up public opinion to back them up in the hope of bring the supreme ruler round to their view – so far without success.
To further this campaign, the president’s followers organized Sunday’s protest at the British embassy in Tehran and had the Bassij (the RGs civilian militia) round up a student petition at Iran’s 266 universities and colleges for putting the 15 British sailors and marines on trial and executing them. This would have been a provocation that the British could not pass over without drastic action.
debkafile reports that up until now, the moderate pragmatists are on top of the debate. Forcing the radical president to postpone his press conference gave them a victory. But the debate continues and is still unresolved.

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